« Eating in China | Main | »

I'm not a religious person.

When I was a little girl, I remember going to Sunday School, but I can't remember doing anything there. When I was older, I took Religious Instruction, but could never figure out why. When I was a teenager, we went to church at Easter and Christmas. Religion was something I was aware of, but not something that affected my life in any significant way.

When I went to college, I started meeting people to whom religion was very important. My four closest friends back in Edmonton all have very strong faith. Out of respect to the friends I made in college, I started studying religion, to the point where I took enough Religious Studies classes that I could have listed it as a minor, I'm certain. I've read the Bible, the Apocrypha, Luther's Small Catechism, The Case for Christ, the Jesus Seminars. I've banged my head against the wall when watching movies like Stigmata.

If you asked me, I would tell you I don't believe in God.

That all being said, I was surprised at how disquieted I was at the idea of going into a Buddhist temple. The smiling people around me told me this temple was to the Goddess of Mercy, and they wanted me to show respect to her as an ancient Chinese god. One part of me was going Cool, I get to see a temple! A real temple, not one in a photo! The other part of me was feeling very uncomfortable. I'd never been in a temple. I've walked past synagogues, I've studied Greek temples, I've written tests about Shinto and Buddhism, but I've never been inside a place that represented someone's faith, other than a Christian church.

"There are monks living there now. Maybe we will see them!" His English name was Liam. He'd told me his Chinese name, but I could only remember the translation: Mr. Left. He led me over to where a store was selling incense, and we bought two packages each. I looked at the bundles in my hand, tracing my fingers over the Chinese writing, and thought about Mercy.

As they led me back towards the gates, I started chanting in my head: Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee...

I was surprised at my reaction. Like I said, I'm not religious. I know Hail Mary because of a song I like. But it seemed like the right thing to keep in mind.

We went up in a gondola, and I watched the view get larger and more beautiful. Most of the people in the gondola with me didn't speak English, and those that did just assured me I shouldn't look down, and that we were safe. I ignored them for the most part, staring down at the park we had passed on our way. It was beautiful down there, and I was disappointed that we didn't have the time to walk through the park, to indulge my desire to see everything here.

We got off the gondola and walked up the stairs in the mountain, and I was once again awed by the view. This time I could see the Yangzte River, so wide across I could barely pick out the opposite shore. It was beautiful and timeless, and I could have been content at that point to just gaze out at the water.

"When I was attending college, I used to take my girlfriends for walks along the river," said Liam, and I smiled at him. He was very polite, very sweet, and the only person there who made sure I knew what was going on. I wonder now if he sensed my unease, but it's hard to say. Body language and facial expression seem so different in China, but I can't put my finger on what the difference is.

He told me a story about how Buddha had made all the wolves promise to stop killing people and animals in the area by making a bet with them. He had bet that he could make the sky dark, and the wolves, not knowing who he was, had laughed and agreed to the bet. When Buddha tossed his cloak up into the sky, it grew larger and large until the whole area was dark. The wolves, realizing then who they were confronting, left the area, never to return.

By now we were at the top of the steps, and the temple was behind us. I looked up at it, and thought about the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me.

I've always considered myself very open minded, and never thought much about religious preferences. I know what I believe, and what I don't believe. I accept what other people believe. I question about religion, but I don't question faith. Standing there, confronted with definitive proof that other religions existed, I was surprised and disquieted. I'm still attempting to figure out why.

We walked up to the temple, and each of us in turned bowed and genuflected to the first statue, tossing a few coins into the box before it. I did as the others did, but stared up at the statue, wondering at it. It was a large statue, the typical laughing Buddha that we've all studied in school.

"He is always laughing, always smiling at life's misfortunes. Just like you!" said Mr. Left, grinning at me.

We walked past two large statues reaching up to the ceiling. I recognized the style, but couldn't tell you what they were or what they represented. Garishly coloured, their faces were dark brown, and their smiles were fake. They looked frightening.

We continued to walk through the temple, stopping every few minutes to bow before another statue. I never became truly comfortable with it, and clutched my packages of incense to me between bowing. I kept looking at everything, wanting to touch it, to have someone explain everything about this faith, this temple, this lifestyle to me, but everyone was in a rush, and I wasn't comfortable asking.

We passed a statue with many arms. "She is using all of her thousand hands to give blessings," Liam told me, and I looked at her hands, trying to decide what she was holding.

We eventually got to the inner sanctum of sorts. I stood outside it, feeling very uncomfortable. Mr. Left pointed to the statue inside. "It is a tree," he said. "The people of China carved it into a Buddha." I heard a bell tolling, and saw a monk banging against a stick against a large bell.

In the half-light it was hard to see what he looked like. I only have impressions now, of a robe of an off-red colour, and the sudden thought that he actually looked like a monk on t.v. I guess I assumed that t.v. got that wrong. He sat down at a table in front of the statue, holding onto a feather duster, and I smiled.

I finally bowed at this statue, too, and when I looked up at the face of Buddha I thought again of golden calves. I quickly stepped away, and out onto the highest balcony.

Liam led me to a fire, and told me that I was to take my incense and toss it in there. I looked at the packaging again, and he pointed out the Chinese characters. "This one means that you will have good luck in the new year," he said, pointing at the first package. "This one means you'll get lots of money." I smiled at that, and stepped forward, tossing both of them in the fire. I couldn't smell the incense, and was disappointed, but I watched it burn for a few minutes before I was led to the cushions in front of the fire, and asked to bow again, in thanks for the blessings.

After that, there wasn't much left. We walked back down from the temple, got back onto the Gondola, and into the van. We were heading to the t.v. tower, where they told me I would see an even better view of the city. I just closed my eyes, leaning back against the seat as we started to move, and pondered everything that had just happened.

I knew I wanted to come back, to look at everything by myself, and to wonder at faith and religion and my own feelings about them.


TrackBack URL for this entry: